Senate Energy Chairman Has a Broad Agenda and an Eye Toward a Dream Job

Amy Harder
National Journal

Ron Wyden wasn’t fast enough for the NBA, but he’s plenty quick on his feet in the Senate.

“I was dreaming about playing in the pros,” the lanky, 6-foot-4-inch Democratic senator from Oregon said during an interview in his office last week. “I was too small, and I made up for it by being really slow.”

These days, the 64-year-old Wyden, who played college basketball at the University of California (Santa Barbara) is still running around a lot. I tried to talk with Wyden one afternoon in the Capitol about his schedule, but he dashed past me and said he didn’t have time. “I have to keep something going for Senator Feinstein,” Wyden said without slowing his stride. He was running between the Senate floor and a hearing of the Intelligence Committee, where he is the third-ranking Democrat behind Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California.

“I was racing to get to the floor to cast a vote, so I could get back in time so Senator Feinstein and my colleagues could get over to the votes,” Wyden said later that day during an impromptu interview wedged between a meeting with the president of Palau and one with energy executives. “They always send me because I walk really fast,” he said.

A lawmaker’s day is always packed, but Wyden’s agenda is particularly hectic right now. As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he is hashing out a plan with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to get energy-efficiency legislation to the floor next month.

As one of the earliest critics of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs and a top member of the Intelligence panel, Wyden is in the middle of the debate over the National Security Agency leaks. And closest to his heart, he is pushing a Medicare reform proposal he rolled out last week.

Wyden first came to Congress 32 years ago to drive reform in Medicare. After graduating from law school in 1974, he cofounded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for the elderly, and stayed focused on these issues when he first came to the House in 1981. He was elected to the Senate in 1996.

“Certainly the developments in the national security area of the last 10 days have lengthened the day,” says Wyden, who started at 5:30 a.m. the day I interviewed him. He predicted he would wind down around 9:30 p.m.

“Nancy and I have three children under 6, so it’s kind of bedlam,” Wyden said, referring to his wife and kids who split their time between Portland, New York City, and Washington.

Things are only going to get busier. With Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., retiring, Wyden is poised to be the top Democrat on the powerful Finance Committee, which has a hand in almost every bill and is ground zero for Washington’s ambitious goal of overhauling the tax code. Aides close to Wyden say he would jump at the chance to chair the committee.

“In the early days in the Senate I had many jobs, but there was no more important one than getting him on the Senate Finance Committee,” said Josh Kardon, who was Wyden’s chief of staff for 17 years. “There was not a close second.” Another former aide put it more succinctly: “Being chairman of the Finance Committee is his dream job,” said Jennifer Hoelzer, who worked on communications issues for Wyden for almost seven years.

Like all chairmen-in-waiting, Wyden wouldn’t comment on the prospect of running the Finance Committee, which hinges on whether Democrats keep control of the Senate. He instead likened his position today to when former Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., announced he was retiring in early 2011. “It was my job to do everything I can to assist him in those very difficult challenges, and I did that,” Wyden said. “I want to pay the same respect to Chairman Baucus.”

It’s not just the Finance Committee Wyden is poised to lead. Of the five panels he sits on—Energy and Natural Resources, Budget, Finance, Intelligence, and Aging—he will be first or second Democrat on all of them in the next Congress. He’s catapulted to the top so quickly because of a string of planned retirements, including those of Baucus and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is ahead of him in seniority on both the Finance and Intelligence panels. In April, Wyden snagged Rockefeller’s legislative director, Jocelyn Moore, as his deputy chief of staff and policy director.

“She is so well regarded in terms of her knowledge about the issues and personal relationships up here,” Wyden said. “That’s really helped stretch the day.” Moore’s expertise is in health care, which aligns with Wyden’s passion.

“The budget stalemate is largely about Medicare and taxes. And I’ve been particularly involved with both of those issues,” Wyden said. He has a track record of working across the aisle on these issues with Republicans, including House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin; Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana; and former Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Robert Bennett of Utah.

“What’s important here are ideas-driven approaches that you build with a bipartisan coalition, that people get to keep principles they feel strongly about,” Wyden said, before quickly adding: “But that you could also move to the finish line.”

For the next year and a half, Wyden the Energy chairman will try his hardest to get energy measures across the finish line. Next year, Wyden the Finance chairman (or ranking member) will finally be where he’s always dreamed of being. Well, ever since his NBA dreams didn’t pan out. “That was sort of a ridiculous theory,” Wyden said with a laugh.